These kinds of adaptations of existing structures are common in natural history, notes Robert Berwick, a professor of computational linguistics at MIT who is also an author of the paper.
"When something new evolves, it is often built out of old parts," Berwick says. "We see this over and over again in evolution. Old structures can change just a little bit, and acquire radically new functions."
A new chapter in the songbook
The new paper, "The Emergence of Hierarchical Structure in Human Language," was co-written by Miyagawa, Berwick and Kazuo Okanoya, a biopsychologist at the University of Tokyo who is an expert on animal communication.
To consider the difference between the expression layer and the lexical layer, take a simple sentence: "Todd saw a condor." We can easily create variations of this, such as, "When did Todd see a condor?" This rearranging of elements takes place in the expression layer and allows us to add complexity and ask questions. But the lexical layer remains the same, since it involves the same core elements: the subject, "Todd," the verb, "to see," and the object, "condor."
Birdsong lacks a lexical structure. Instead, birds sing learned melodies with what Berwick calls a "holistic" structure; the entire song has one meaning, whether about mating, territory or other things. The Bengalese finch, as the authors note, can loop back to parts of previous melodies, allowing for greater variation and communication of more things; a nightingale may be able to recite from 100 to 200 different melodies.
By contrast, other types of animals have bare-bones modes of expression without the same melodic capacity. Bees communicate visually, using precise waggles to indicate sources of foods to their peers; other primates can make a range of sounds, comprising warnings about predators and other messages.
Humans, according to Miyagawa, Berwick and Okanoya, fr
|Contact: Sarah McDonnell|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology